Has the National Theatre lost its way?
Alexander Larman considers Rufus Norris’s vision, and the future of the National Theatre.
What do Boris Johnson and Rufus Norris, the National Theatre artistic director, have in common? Not a great deal, it would initially appear: the one is an Old Etonian Conservative Prime Minister, and the other is a socially aware self-described ‘wanky luvvie’. Yet both are in charge of venerable institutions that have been much-criticised and yet seem to epitomise contemporary Englishness; both have shrugged off accusations of incompetence and an inability to read the wider mood, and have emerged triumphant as a result; and, late last year, both extended their terms in post for at least another five years. Johnson’s election victory was, of course, famous, but it also transpired last week, at a press conference to announce the rest of the National’s 2020 season, that Norris will be remaining until 2025. We have therefore reached the halfway point of the Norris regime. How does it hold up?
While there has been no War Horse, History Boys or One Man, Two Guvnors in the last few years – a megahit that can be spun out into a lengthy and profitable afterlife – there have been several examples of big, successful shows, often with huge star actors, that have been a testament to what the clout of Britain’s showcase theatre can do. Anyone who has seen Network, Angels in America, Follies or The Lehman Trilogy – or, more recently, Small Island and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane – would be forgiven for believing that the Norris years represent a highpoint in British theatre.
It is even possible to wonder whether the previous artistic directors, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner, were, respectively, too obsessed by putting on elaborate musicals and over-interested in conservative (with a small ‘c’) programming that entertained but seldom challenged. While this is enormously unfair on Hytner – whose own regime began with Jerry Springer: The Opera – there will be many who believe that the diverse, socially and politically engaged programming at Norris’s National represents theatre at its best.
Does anyone dare to suggest to Norris that his vision of the National Theatre is one that needs compromise and refinement in order to succeed?
There will also be those who look at the forthcoming repertoire and sigh. There will be an adaptation of Rachel Cusk’s novels, an April de Angelis work about a Hackney restaurant dealing with the area’s gentrification, and a ‘radical’ adaptation of Racine’s Phaedra with Kristin Scott Thomas. Those theatregoers who would prefer something more frivolous may be contented with Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s Jack Absolute Flies Again, an adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals, though it is tempting to ask why the original comedy could not be resurrected. Of the twentieth century, or earlier, canon so ably revived by Norris’ predecessors, there is virtually nothing, apart from Emlyn Williams’ socially aware 1938 play The Corn Is Green.
Even one of the National’s stalwart writers, Sir David Hare, commented in a recent interview to the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis that this unwillingness to revive older drama was a pity. ‘A play by, say, the Restoration dramatist William Congreve can tell us just as much about consumerism as a modern work. And while diversity is a completely admirable principle, I worry that the National is becoming a sociological project, rather than an artistic project.’ Norris has not abandoned the canon altogether – there is a new Romeo and Juliet with rising stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor this summer – but those who would like to see the traditional plays by white men, dead or alive, being staged will have to head elsewhere, to Uncle Vanya and Leopoldstadt in the West End at the time of writing, or to Hytner’s Bridge Theatre, where Simon Russell Beale will play Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman early next year.
Norris’ vision of the National was epitomised by the first play that he staged, a Carol Anne Duffy adaptation of the mystery play Everyman, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. It was energetic, diverse, formally experimental and not particularly good. And while the hits have been distinguished and plentiful, the misses have been equally spectacular. Even if one gives a pass to such undistinguished productions as Everyman and The Threepenny Opera, there have been a series of disasters, usually on the problematic Olivier stage; Wonder.land, Common, Salome, George and the Dragon and Macbeth all opened to dreadful reviews and, presumably, weak box office. The latest big opening on the Olivier, Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, may star Lesley Manville and Hugo Weaving, amidst an enormous ensemble cast, but it was panned as ‘slow soporific drama’, ‘terminal bloat’ and possessed of ‘an unforgivable running time’.
Does anyone dare to suggest to Norris that his vision of the National Theatre is one that needs compromise and refinement in order to succeed? The chief executive, Tessa Ross, left in April 2015, purportedly because she believed that the theatre should only have one person in charge. She was subsequently replaced by ‘executive director’ Lisa Burger, who began her career as an accountant before spending time at the Welsh National Opera and the Royal Opera House. Undoubtedly, she keeps the ever-necessary financial side of the theatre running – it needs its three auditoria to be filled with successful shows near-constantly, to say nothing of its bars, restaurants and shop being packed – but it is unclear as to whether she serves the purposes of a dramaturg, a sceptical Kenneth Tynan to Norris’s self-assured Laurence Olivier.
And, for all the confidence placed in Norris by the National’s board by asking him to sign a new contract, he struck a combative note at a press conference announcing the forthcoming season. When asked about Julian Fellowes’s recent comments that ‘The left-of-centre metropolitan elite have had quite a good run. I just feel that for a long time the sort of authorities that control everything…the National Theatre, the National Gallery, the National Trust, the national this, the national that — have all been speaking with one voice…they have dealt with their opinions as if they were facts, and everyone else’s opinions as if they were nonsense’, Norris snapped that ‘I don’t know Julian and I’ve not seen him here recently. I totally dispute the idea that we’re speaking in any particular bubble. Half the population are women, it’s a fact. If [Fellowes] would like to argue about that, he’s welcome to come along. Our diversity targets are based on the population of this country.’
As someone who believes that diverse casting is not just a good but a necessary presence on our stages and screens, I cannot also help feeling that the presence of Julian Fellowes at the National – as writer, actor, director or simple provocateur – would be a valuable thing, as well. Norris’s attitude towards criticism seems to be a kind of measured anger, saying in another interview (with the Daily Telegraph, no less) that ‘I want a National that is there for everybody in the population. Is that woke? I don’t know, I don’t care.’ In the same conversation, he expresses a welcome desire to produce work by the canonical authors – ‘we will do Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Miller – all those important writers’, but then condemns Laurence Fox, saying ‘I’m not joining in the Laurence Fox self-publicity machine. I don’t have any time for it. I think that people who haven’t experienced [racism] can’t talk about it.’ One can assume that the chances of Fox acting at the National under Norris are non-existent.
Still, whether one regards ‘Lozza’ as sage or simpleton, he is at least articulating a perspective that none of the writers and directors currently employed by the National are touching on. (In his Atlantic interview, Norris airily says that ‘I know there [are]’ people at the theatre who voted Leave, but does not name any of them.) Right-wing playwrights, with the partial exception of Sir Tom Stoppard, are non-existent in contemporary drama, and not since Richard Bean’s 2009 play England People Very Nice – itself a provocation rather than a call to conservative arms – has there been a new work at the National that takes an approach that one could say represents the Brexit-voting 52%, rather than the 48%. There have been hand-wringing pieces of devised theatre looking at the social impact and causes of Brexit, but not one that has attempted to present it as a good or necessary idea.
Norris, to his credit, has made attempts to address perceived bias at the institution. He wrote in an opinion piece in the industry magazine The Stage last month that there were ‘reasons to be cheerful’, not least that for ‘the first time we have a prime minister who is writing a book about one of the country’s best-known playwrights, and who knows the value that culture brings to life.’ If this is damning with faint praise, he also wrote that ‘Boris Johnson is also a pragmatist who might finally recognise that the world-leading arts we consistently deliver as a sector are a ludicrously inexpensive and easy win to support.’ He did not mention that it was a Conservative arts minister, Ed Vaizey, who was a consistent champion of the National, amongst other organisations, and who had a letter of thanks signed by dozens of luminaries upon his sacking, including none other than Nicholas Hytner.
Yet the final similarity between Boris and Rufus is fundamental. Both are in charge of institutions that have withstood weak leadership as well as visionaries, and, as the country and the National change inexorably, ultimately their stewardship will be a transitory one. We have to hope that both leave their responsibilities in better shape than when they took them over, and that both men seek counsel from those in a position to aid, rather than abet. If Norris’s second term at the National does all this, then it might yet be a glorious success, even if precedent so far is indicating otherwise.
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